Fishing interests in remote Washington County fear the sight of wind turbines will ruin the escape they offer
GRAND LAKE STREAM – The talk in this remote Washington County village, home to the state’s largest concentration of Registered Maine Guides, revolves around weather and fishing. This June, there’s a new and unexpected topic: Wind power.
Eighteen miles away, a subsidiary of Boston-based First Wind Holdings wants to build a 27-turbine wind farm on the flanks of Bowers Mountain, east of Lincoln. That’s a mighty far cast from this fabled fishing mecca, which attracts anglers from across the country.
But the guides who launch their signature Grand Laker canoes to stalk bass and salmon in the dozens of isolated lakes and ponds that dot the forest have a different perspective. For them, the wild landscape is an economic development tool.
The unbroken horizon of water, woods and sky is an essential part of their brand, the guides say. It’s a reason generations of sportsmen come here. The guides fear that views of turbine towers on distant ridges and blinking lights in the pitch-black sky will offend visitors who value the feeling of wilderness, and prompt them to go elsewhere.
Guides and sporting camp owners are highly independent, but Bowers Mountain has led them to organize against wind power. Several are expected to testify Monday and Tuesday evening at public hearings in Lincoln before the Land Use Regulation Commission.
A recent visit to the region offers a glimpse at why emotions are running high. It also puts a new perspective on what wind power opponents mean by the slogan, “not in my backyard.”
EXPERIENCE WOULDN’T BE THE SAME
A cool, northeast wind was whipping up Sysladobsis Lake, a 5,300-acre body of water that straddles Washington and Penobscot counties. But rain showers and wind weren’t keeping Arthur Barr on shore. Barr has been coming to the area from New Rochelle, N.Y., every spring since 1965.
“Where else can I find fishing like this?” he said.
So Barr and his wife, Tobi, sat hunkered down in the canoe, as Dale Tobey, a Maine Guide from Grand Lake Stream, motored into a sheltered cove at the lake’s southern tip.
From the cove, the trio could glance north to Bowers Mountain and spot a 260-foot meteorological tower on the horizon, collecting weather and wind-speed data. If the $136 million project goes forward, turbines reaching 428 feet high to their blade tips would be added to the view.
Bowers Mountain lies along a chain of hills known to possess great energy potential. First Wind already has built two major wind farms north of Route 6 – Rollins and Stetson. Bowers would hook into existing transmission lines at Stetson and add 69 megawatts of capacity to the grid, enough for 31,000 homes. And unlike some projects that have drawn opposition, Bowers is a low-elevation site that isn’t home to rare plants or animals, or within earshot of people.
But turbine towers, even far away on rolling hills, would change the experience for some. Calling from the canoe, Tobi Barr held up her spinning rod, then motioned back to the meteorological tower.
“This is what you come for; you don’t want to see that,” she said.
TOO CLOSE, TOO FAR
Tobey had steered his canoe into a cove next to The Pines Lodge. Rustic cabins are tucked into the woods along a peninsula that hasn’t changed much since the first sportsmen began arriving in 1884. Steve Norris, a Maine Guide who has owned The Pines Lodge with his family for 20 years, wants it to remain that way.
“We’re as scared as we can be,” Norris said. “I’ve had people tell me that they can stay home in Massachusetts and see industrial sites on the horizon. They don’t have to come to Maine to see that.”
Norris and other nearby residents are especially upset because the closest turbine towers would be located on the edge of the state-designated zone where wind power projects are encouraged. They fish just on the other side of the line, in an area zoned for higher protections.
State standards limit the review of a wind project’s visual impact to an area eight miles away. A consultant working for First Wind studied the project’s scenic impacts and sought to simulate the views from various lakes. In general, the consultant plays down the recreational significance of Sysladobsis Lake and the scenic impact turbines would have there.
Twelve miles down a dirt road from The Pines Lodge, the village of Grand Lake Stream is well outside the review zone. But First Wind has met with residents, says John Lamontagne, a company spokesman, to try to address local concerns.
First Wind determined that no more than three turbines would be visible from the village under any conditions. And there’s growing evidence, Lamontagne said, that many recreational visitors aren’t bothered by wind turbines.
“The assumption that visibility of turbines negatively impacts recreational users is simply not always true,” he said. “While some people would prefer not to look at turbines, many people are indifferent and others find them beautiful.”
Such comments show a lack of understanding of what makes this region special and why people like Arthur and Tobi Barr come here, guides say.
“Our ticket is the wilderness, the remoteness,” said Dale Tobey, vice president of the Grand Lake Stream Guides Association. “It’s our way of life and our living. There are literally hundreds of places (Barr) can go between New York and here, but he comes here.”
Tobey is a third-generation guide. His grandfather began taking people into the woods after World War II. Today, fishing guides can earn more than $200 a day, so they feel threatened by anything that alters the sense of place.
In typical wind power battles, opponents often are unable or unwilling to put their money where their hearts are. That’s not the case here. Guides and camp owners have been working for 10 years to protect their backyard on a grand scale.
The Downeast Lakes Land Trust has used conservation easements and direct purchases to limit development in a watershed that covers 370,000 acres around Grand Lake Stream. The trust now is trying to raise $24 million to buy a crucial, 21,000-acre, waterfront parcel that connects 1.4 million acres of woods and water between eastern Maine and Canada. Local support is strong. Grand Lake Stream, population 150, voted to contribute $40,000 for the purchase.
The land abuts Leen’s Lodge, a 71-year-old sporting camp on West Grand Lake where the Barrs were staying. Their annual visit underscores a crucial, financial connection: Visitors stay at the sporting camps; guides take them afield; local businesses supply and service the camps.
Charles Driza is a Maine Guide who bought Leen’s Lodge in 2001. He plans to testify at the public hearing that a loss of revenue at the lodge would threaten his business, and be a blow for guides and workers associated with Leen’s.
The dining room at Leen’s offers a direct view of Bowers Mountain across West Grand Lake. Turbine towers would be no more than a speck on the horizon from here. But West Grand connects to a chain of wild lakes, including Sysladobsis, Junior, Pocumcus and Big. These water routes, first paddled by native people, hold great meaning for guests and guides
Dave Rothberg of Short Hills, N.J., has been coming to Leen’s for 23 years. Aided by a guide, he had a successful day catching smallmouth bass on Pocumcus Lake, the thoroughfare between West Grand and lower Sysladobsis.
Eating breakfast in the dining room, Rothberg said wind turbines would represent change, and he doesn’t come here for change.
“I come here,” he said, “because it’s in the middle of nowhere.”